Know Your Lore: The legacy of Chris Metzen
Earlier this week, Chris Metzen announced his retirement from Blizzard. He’s worn a lot of hats over the last twenty-three years with the company. Out of all those hats, the one he wore best of all was the one that had him spinning and shaping stories for every franchise Blizzard Entertainment has.
It might seem a little strange to write a lore column about a real-life individual. But every universe and every story we’ve picked apart, every column we’ve ever written, not a single one of them would have been possible without this guy. Know Your Lore wouldn’t be here without the worlds bouncing around in Metzen’s noggin — so really, you could say he earned this one.
Chris Metzen’s second most well-known role – after, you know, writing everything under the sun – is providing the voice for Thrall, former Warchief of the Horde. And in a way, he is Thrall. Thrall’s story echoes his own, though whether or not this was a conscious decision is anyone’s guess.
Metzen originally started out as an artist for Blizzard, working on artwork for the original Warcraft: Orcs and Humans manual among other projects. It wasn’t until Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness that we began to see Metzen’s story capabilities, and the Warcraft universe began to be fleshed out. In 1996, Metzen worked on developing a different kind of universe with the creation of Diablo, and in 1998, he ventured into the realm of sci-fi with StarCraft. In 2001, Metzen published his first and only Warcraft novel, Of Blood and Honor – a story that painted a different picture of the Orcish race.
But that story was just the beginning. As creative director of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, Metzen took the fairly basic story of Humanity vs. rampaging Orcs and gave it a layer of unexpected depth. Suddenly, the orcs weren’t just a mindless rampaging army – there was more to their story, a fascinating story we hadn’t heard before. That tale of failure and redemption struck a chord with people. The RTS games were always fun to play, of course – but suddenly, they had heart.
It resonated with people. And just as Thrall rallied the Orcs and ushered them into a new age of the Horde, Metzen ushered us all into a much more complex universe than previously thought.
The world of Warcraft
Without that story – a story that established the world of Azeroth and its residents as more than just cardboard heroes and villains – we would not have had World of Warcraft. Thrall, Arthas, Illidan, Malfurion, Tyrande, Jaina, Cairne – all of the big characters and places we’ve come to know and love were initially introduced in Warcraft III. Between Reign of Chaos and Frozen Throne, the story suddenly had new life.
We cared about these people. We cared about what happened to them. Warcraft was around before Metzen’s involvement, but it was Metzen’s involvement that took that initially simple story and gave it life. And although the in-game cinematics may pale in comparison to what we see today, they’re still just as evocative as they were when they were introduced. Grom’s death tugged at our heartstrings. Medivh’s final, mysterious words piqued our curiosity. The sudden, violent death of Terenas shocked us. Arthas’s ascension to the Frozen Throne chilled us, and left us begging for more.
And when Blizzard announced World of Warcraft, it was little wonder the title was so highly anticipated. Metzen painted a world that wasn’t just enthralling – it was the type of world we wanted to experience first-hand. We didn’t just want to watch the heroes of Azeroth play out their tale – we wanted to be part of it all ourselves.
The strength of story
That kind of investment in a story isn’t just a coincidence – it’s the hallmark of a really good writer. It’s one thing to slap together a story. Anyone can string words together. It’s another thing altogether to get people emotionally invested in characters and places that don’t actually exist. Between Warcraft, Diablo, and StarCraft, Metzen painted compelling universes that consistently captured people’s imaginations, again and again.
World of Warcraft is a bastion of the MMO genre – in November, it celebrates 12 years of keeping people engaged. Sure, the game has had its ups and downs, but millions of people still flock to it daily. The Legion expansion is the strongest expansion released to date, teeming with story. Years of storylines are reaching what feels like a resolution – and none of those stories would have been possible without Metzen.
A strong story is the kind of story that keeps us engaged throughout those ups and downs. Because even if we don’t like what’s going on at a given point in time – and let’s face it, there have been some things we definitely did not like – we still love the thing enough that we want to see what happens next. We’re passionate about what we like, we’re even more passionate about what we don’t like, but the point is we’re passionate. We wouldn’t be if we didn’t love it.
That takes us back to Thrall, and Metzen, and the correlation between the two. Like Thrall, Metzen rounded us up and took us on a fantastic journey through an unfamiliar world. We rallied behind him because we were captivated by his vision, and we wanted to see where it would lead. We united together and found shelter from the harsh reality of day-to-day living, finding solace in each other and our common bonds.
When the time was right and the world needed him more than just the Horde, Thrall stepped back and gave someone else the reins in order to develop his skills as a Shaman. So too did Metzen relax his hold on the reins of Warcraft, leaving them in the care of an astonishingly talented creative team and moving on to oversee all of Blizzard’s creative endeavors, including a new IP – Overwatch. With his creative guidance, Blizzard’s games have continued to flourish.
And Thrall’s journey led him to a new adventure – a family, something he’d never really had before. The importance of family was something that had been quietly reinforced with Thrall’s story since Cataclysm, when he met Aggra and married her. In Mists, they had a son, and in Warlords, Thrall finally got to reunite with the parents he never knew – even if said parents didn’t know they were speaking to their child from another universe. Thrall’s story isn’t over, but his family is of greatest importance to him these days. And hey, let’s face it – Thrall’s earned it.
Out here in the real world, Metzen has a family of his own, and in his announcement he said he intended to focus on it. And hey, let’s face it – Metzen’s earned it, as well as the title of Coolest Dad Ever.
The hallmark of a good leader isn’t just where they lead; it’s where they inspire you to go. Metzen has inspired an incredible number of people on his journey through the years – coworkers, friends, family, and the millions of people that have been affected in one way or another by the amazing games, and the communities they’ve shaped. Whether he realizes it or not, countless writers, artists, and dreamers have been born from a desire to create worlds of their own, taking their cues from a master they grew up learning from.
It’s a pretty extraordinary thing.
Just saying thank you doesn’t really seem to be enough, does it? How do you thank someone with that kind of monumental influence? Well, I think you just keep doing the things you’ve learned from him over the years. Keep writing, drawing, and creating – make new worlds, and give them a heart. Approach each project, each day with unbridled enthusiasm. Don’t be afraid to geek the heck out over stuff that’s really cool – because there are millions of people right there with you. Let the world flourish with a wave of boundless creativity, and boldly soldier on wherever inspiration leads.
And if you’re me, you also write a Know Your Lore about it. Because hey – the column wouldn’t be here without him, and I wouldn’t be writing about all these crazy stories if he hadn’t let them out of his brain and into the world for all of us to treasure.
So thanks, Chris – and enjoy that retirement, because man have you ever earned it. You’re leaving behind an incredible legacy, and words can’t really express how cool it’s been to experience it.
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